Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Finest Gozleme in all of Turkey

Gozleme in and of itself isn't all that remarkable. Crepe-thin dough wrapped around a layer of [spinach, potato, ground meat] warmed over the buttered bottom side of a pan. But the purported etymology of the word, "göz al-melek", or "eyes of an angel" betray its value. Gozleme is travel food at its finest; simple, warm, filling without being rich, and simple to make. Kindly ignore the old women in Sultanahmet windows slaving over their electric griddles. Gozleme is food for the soul that comes from the soul, it asks far more from its maker.

Get out of Istanbul. This is usually the best way to start a story of an American in Turkey, you can only learn so much from a cramped quarter of Cihangir, jewel of the world and cubic zirconia of the Facebook. Turkey is very big and we are very small, and to find good road food, one must find the roads. For as much respect THY has earned in bolstering their in-flight menu, you won't receive anything of repute in the puddle-jumper to Erzurum, to Diyarbakir, or to Trabzon. There are those that swear by trains, and while I respect it, I am not one of them. Trains are alien impositions to Anatolia, the magic of the Texas Eagle appears as hokum once you get east of Ankara. The train will be populated by the grim and its canteen is stocked with the grimy.

But the buses. Say what you want of a militaristic society, the roads are paved and hue of fine slate, perfect for 12-wheeled Mercedes or 2-treaded Abrams. A modern bus will stop every few hours for refreshments, have a dutiful attendant and all the reading light one can ask for. Ethyl cologne is the perfect refresher after a 16-hour journey, along with a Styrofoam cup of tea.

More importantly, however, is the bus' role as the last remaining conveyance of anonymity. What with airline security, jocular taxis, and officious engineers, the private bus company's clerk is a stolid and unenquiring soul. Pay with cash, most likely the type with Kemaleddin on the reverse. Have your foreign-sounding name dutifully recorded as "Adı Soyadı" and be on your way. Invisibility and quietude follow you on your trip, though perhaps a dubbed Kurt Russell movie will as well. Introspection is a gift.

Don't get to used to the somnambulance, though. Once the bus stops for fuel and food, you'll be thrown into the last vestige of terrain travel, the rest stop. Expect to be charge 75 kurus for the bathroom and 8 lira for a doner. What you're looking for is something to quiet your stomach and contain the warmth to lull you back to sleep. What you're looking for is gozleme.

Though you'll be tempted to eat at each stop, that is the fool's decision. The best meals defeat the best snacks as assuredly as paper beats rock, and you'll want to eat hardy at your destination. What's more, modernity has stripped most of the peculiarities from place. It's no easy task separating Karaköprü from Karaağaç, Şımşrpınar from Sarıyaşı. The OPETs will guide you to your destination, but not to your happiness. The cleavage between the two is the stuff of yearning.

But if you ask any Southern American gentleman where to find the best Southern American food, his eyes will light up and he'll tell you of the gas station with the pit smoker out back. A friend of mine - only slightly bilingual - once tried to convince me that the "gas" in the American "gas station" is a corruption of the German "Gast," that the point is not to refuel your car but to stoke the coals in your heart with conversation and rib-sticking food. On the bus to Tatvan, my seatmate told me at the Acıpayam stop that he was returning home to Lake Van, where he had not been for seven years. When I asked him what he missed most, he didn't respond for the rest of his cup of tea. Before lighting up his third cigarette of the break, he said, "the old buses."

Apparently, it was not just the roads and autos that modernized with Ozal's Turkish Tiger. The entire rest stop system was razed and built anew. Village kaymakams and muhtars realized the steady stream of revenue a refuelling spot in their town represented, they crawled over each other for the opportunity to grovel in front of the Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Karayolları Genel Müdürlüğü. Especially in the east, they promised more captured "PKK" members, more Village Guard recruits, more urbanization, less Islam. Winners and losers may have been selected arbitrarily or no, but it seemed my Tatvan'li compatriot felt something was amiss.

At Bitlis, just west of our destination on the shores of Lake Van, my seatmate Kurban told me I should get off. I doubted he was interested in the ancestral home of William Saroyan, so I left with him at an hour just a shade too early to be called morning. "Gülselam may not be living," he told me, "but I am sure her family still cooks."

Kurban and I waited 83 minutes for a bus to pick us up, a rust-and-blue affair with a handpainted sign promising Baykan in our future. We wouldn't stay long enough to see the bus hold up its end of the bargain, as I followed Kurban off shortly after settling in, thanking my good sense for packing a light bag and trusting the boyish smile on his craggy face to make this all worthwhile.

The three-legged stool's homestead equivalent welcomed us. A porch of a sort, surrounded by rugs of a kind a Grand Bazaar tout could buy a car on and a morose-looking Kangal were all I could see in the gathering light. "Where are we?" I asked my seatmate and tour guide. "The map says Tatlıkaynak," was his reply, a bit more ambiguous than I would've hoped.

As he walked into the house I stayed outside. Always unfamiliar with the etiquette of strangers, the sounds of Kurmanci gave me an even better excuse to get in a staring contest with the dog. I was squatting next to the fella in a crease of sunlight when a shadow blackened our dirt. I look up to see a vest I could use as a hammock topped with a beard and kaffiyeh.

"Hamidullah Kazanlıoğlu," Kurban gestured me over. "He speaks even worse Turkish than you, but he has gathered that you are hungry."

Our conversation never got far beyond that, even over strong tea. As gracious as a host Hamidullah Bey was, he couldn't wrap his head around the concept of an American student studying abroad nor could I mine on what exactly he did for a living. His insistence on using "talib" to mean "student" and my casual mix-up of "yayla" and "ayla" certainly did not help matters. The smell of melting butter was tantalizing, however, as Kurban and I kept glancing at each other and smiling, as if we just landed dates with the two prettiest girls in school.

While talking (or to be more exact, staring) with my new friends, a woman who could've been anywhere within ten years of my age came around to place three square folds of dough on the low table. I roll my eyes along with most when I hear of Flaubert or Loti's obsession with the headscarved, silent, woman. It is a disgusting trope that speaks of fantasies of submission, of in-utero colonialism, and of gross disrespect. However, when a woman comes to my table to serve food, make eye contact, offer a puzzled look of, "you're not from here, are you?" and then walks away, it is only human to have my curiosity piqued. I feel less shame than shrug about that.

Forks and napkins are clearly out of the question. Plates do nothing that rugs cannot manage. Eating a piping hot origami of butter, dough, and sharp white cheese with dirty hands is best done artfully, rather than with tact or skill. The science of gozleme only adds to this. It's outer shell crisps and browns in spots but only in spots; less like a crepe and more like a $25 pizza. To avoid losing too much of the interior, an eater must choose when and where to eat the crisped parts and where to go for the chewy. Saying the filling is "white cheese and herbs" is akin to saying mountains are rocks and dirt. The cheese is crumbly and tangy. Less of a slap than feta, to be sure, but the greenery (greenery that the Turkish language, in a bout of hand-waving, labels as "grass") adds depth and a nice Spring-y aspect. The gozleme fills me with warmth and genuine enthusiasm. If something this simple can taste so good, my own simple self may be able to accomplish something. Kurban's historiographically-dubious explanation of the history of gozleme, something to do with shepherds and empty pans and the long horsetravel along the Anatolian steppe, gets drowned out by my reverie and suddenwistfulness.

After finishing the last bite and squinting at the hills trying their best to cover up a brazen autumn sun, Hamidullah snaps me out of my catatonia. "When are you going back to America?" He asks.

And just like that, I remember. This is not my home, this is just a vacation. I stand less of a chance of becoming a True Turk than Apo himself. Just another suburban boy off trying to define himself through the myriad life choices of others, trying to collect cool stories to tell skinny girls when I return to DC-area bars.

"I drive back tomorrow," I say. "After I get some rest and find some dessert."

"Do you mean you will fly back?" He says, after a brief consult with Kurban in Kurmanci, making sure he at least half-understood me correctly."

"No, I meant to say drive. I need to tell everyone from here to Istanbul to have breakfast with you one day."

We were then able to see the beard and kaffiyeh split into a canyon-wide smile.

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